“Butley” dissects a nasty, witty London lit prof

Nathan Lane brings intensity to a Simon Gray revival

By Lucy Komisar

This dark, well-made character study of a nasty, self-hating closet-gay British professor, takes place in 1971, the year Simon Gray‘s play was first produced in London. The theme fits into one of Gray‘s traditional subjects, the crises faced by middle-aged male intellectuals.

There‘s little to like about Butley (Nathan Lane), the man. He sloughs off his work and dismisses students who arrive for tutorials. He speaks in doggerel, showing his contempt for intelligence. He reserves his energy for envying those who‘ve made something of their talents. He is a miserable alcoholic. Lane‘s intensity aptly captures a man whose energies have no productive place to go.

Butley inhabits a London University garret office with steel desks and a grey mood, a fit setting for his personality. He shares the space with Joseph (Julian Ovenden), a young acolyte and erstwhile lover who wants to advance to a lectureship and has dumped him in favor of a successful publisher. Perhaps Joseph is Butley in his youth.

Butley in his middle years is witty but humorless except for one-liners that show his snobbery. He asks about the parents of Joseph‘s lover: “Do they have a plaster gnome? Does the front doorbell play a tune?”

He reeks of hostility to women. When his divorcing wife (Pamela Gray) talks about his frozen soul, he inquires, “Is there a fishmonger in that?” Soul/sole, get it? With bitter wit, he comments, “A man‘s bound to be judged by his wife‘s husband.”

Playwright Gray appears hostile to women as well. Under Nicholas Martin‘s direction, the only competent independent woman in the play, Professor Edna Shaft (a routinely professional Dana Ivey), is a broad-shouldered caricature drawn in the outline of a man. Does the name “Shaft” have significance?

The unanswered question is why Butley got married in the first place, though Gray, who was teaching at a London University college when he wrote the play, would know as well as anyone the degree to which gay academics in 1970s London needed beards.

“Butley.” Written by Simon Gray. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set by Alexander Dodge. Starring Nathan Lane, Julian Ovenden, Dana Ivey, Pamela J. Gray, James McMenamin, Darren Pettie, Jessica Stone.

Booth Theatre, 222 West 45 St. Tue 7 pm; Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sat 2 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through Jan. 14, 2007. $76.25-$96.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.butleyonbroadway.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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